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Prospects Report: Do the Pirates need a push?

Senior Fantasy Writer
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For the first time in 21 years, the Pirates had reason to celebrate last season.

But with accomplishment comes expectations, and when expectations aren't met in the world of professional sports, heads roll.

Whose heads exactly remains to be seen, but while general manager Neal Huntington's and manager Clint Hurdle's jobs are about as safe as it gets right now, what they accomplished last year has shifted the fan base's focus from the present to the future, for better or worse. A poor showing could quickly turn the tides against them.

Which makes the Pirates' sub-.500 record to begin the season especially troublesome.

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They can do only so much for the pitching staff. Ray Searage has already worked his magic on Edinson Volquez to give them a serviceable top four that also includes Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano and Charlie Morton, but they just don't have the talent the Cardinals and Reds do. And the Brewers are making a case of their own with Yovani Gallardo, Kyle Lohse, Matt Garza, Marco Estrada and Wily Peralta.

No, the Pirates' best hope for distinguishing themselves is their starting lineup, which remains as top-heavy as ever with reigning MVP Andrew McCutchen leading the charge. Pedro Alvarez can hit some homers, and Neil Walker and Russell Martin certainly don't embarrass themselves relative to the positions they play. But particularly with Starling Marte scuffling to begin the season, the Pirates lineup isn't keeping anybody up at night.

What they need is another impact bat, and I'm not talking Ike Davis. I'm not talking anyone they could find on the trade market this time of year, but what's already right under their noses.

Through 18 games at Triple-A Indianapolis, prospect Gregory Polanco is hitting .419 (31 for 74) with three home runs, three triples, four doubles and three stolen bases.

Granted, it's a small sample, which is true for every player at every level this time of year, but when a prospect considered "on the verge" makes it look that easy at the highest level he can go, it usually means he's ready to graduate. It certainly did for Mike Trout in 2012, when he hit .403 (31 for 77) with one home run, five triples, four doubles and six stolen bases in 20 games at Triple-A Salt Lake.

Which isn't to say Polanco is as good as Trout. A player that good comes along once a generation. But Polanco is still about as high-end as prospects get, with Baseball America ranking him 10th overall, between Archie Bradley and Taijuan Walker (who are probably already owned in your league), coming into the season.

In terms of what he can do, he fits the mold of a Pirates outfield prospect perfectly, offering a skill set as well-rounded as McCutchen's and Marte's. But in terms of plate discipline and power potential, he comes closer to the former than the latter, making him worth stashing ahead of time.

Yeah, he's only 22, and you can't expect any 22-year-old to meet the full extent of his potential right away. But he's shown more in the minors than McCutchen did, and McCutchen arrived to hit .286 with 12 home runs 22 stolen bases and an .836 OPS in 108 games back in 2009.

In a worst-case scenario, Polanco's power takes a little longer to develop and he does about what Christian Yelich did after his arrival last year. But in a best-case scenario, he's too valuable to take out your lineup the rest of the way.

Of course, to deliver on any scenario, he'll need to arrive first, but that's where the Pirates' need to compete comes in. The biggest hole in their lineup happens to be the position Polanco plays at Triple-A, right field, where they're currently giving never-weres Travis Snider and Jose Tabata one last chance to prove they don't belong. Rebuilding teams like the Cubs can afford to be patient with reclamation projects, but the Pirates, with the expectations they've created for themselves, need to know when to cut bait.

And I have enough confidence in Huntington, with all the moves he's made to put his team in this position, to believe he does.

What's the argument against it? Yeah, Super 2 is on every general manager's mind, but it's a greater concern for those in rebuilding mode. As early as teams hand out long-term deals these days -- including the ones Huntington himself gave McCutchen and Marte -- it ends up being irrelevant much of the time. Trout and Bryce Harper arrived in late April two years ago to try to help their teams get over the hump, let's not forget. I can't help but see the parallels here.

And continuing with those parallels, I can't imagine a scenario, at least not in a five-outfielder league, where I couldn't find room for Polanco.

Five on the Farm ... by Michael Hurcomb (@CBSHurc), CBSSports.com

I can't help but think while watching Phillies third baseman Cody Asche struggle that it presents a perfect opportunity for the media to stir the pot and start conjuring up speculation about when highly touted prospect Maikel Franco will bump Asche from the starting lineup.

The only problem -- and it's a big one -- is that Franco hasn't given the media a reason to create controversy. As bad as Asche has been offensively, Franco has been equally as bad for Triple-A Lehigh Valley. Franco is batting .134 with no home runs, two doubles and four RBI in 18 games, while Asche is batting .196 with one home run, two doubles and three RBI through 17 games.

So what's general manager Ruben Amaro's take on the struggles of both players?

"Kids, man," Amaro told reporters Monday. "It takes some time to adjust. They’re kids. You have to go through some growing pains with the kiddies. Everybody wants everybody to be an All-Star right away. It's not happening."

Amaro said the Phillies are going to give Asche "chances to play," but if Franco was hitting the cover off the ball, there would be plenty of debate of having him replace Asche. Though, it still could happen sooner than you think.

Amaro hinted Monday Franco isn't playing well because of the cold weather in Pennsylvania. Amaro alluded to a similar issue Franco endured when he played in New Jersey a few a years ago for Class A Lakewood. Franco hit .208 through the first 25 games before batting .297 over his final 107 games, per The Philadelphia Daily News.

The Phillies handed Asche the starting job this spring partly because of how well he performed defensively after his promotion to the majors last season. He's shown at times he's no slouch offensively, slugging .481 in 2012 and .485 at Triple-A last season before his promotion.

However, most folks would probably agree Franco has a higher ceiling, and Fantasy owners would much rather see him in the starting lineup than Asche. But as long as a Franco's offensive production matches the chilly weather in Pennsylvania, a media-fueled controversy is on hold.

Bubba Starling, OF, Royals
Affiliate: Class A Wilmington
2014 stats:.133/.284/.250/.534, one home run, four doubles, six RBI, eight runs, nine walks, 24 strikeouts and one stolen base in 17 games
After undergoing laser-eye surgery last May, Starling gave us hope with a strong second half last season that he was ready to turn the corner in his career. Unfortunately, concern is building again as he's off to a horrid start in 2014. It seems like yesterday the baseball world was buzzing about Starling being an all-world athlete coming out of high school and being billed as a future All-Star. While Starling's defensive skills have lived up to the hype, his offense has not. The Royals have tweaked Starling's stance on a few occasions, but they just can't seem to get his timing down and find a comfort level for the former top-100 prospect. It might not be time to throw in the towel just yet. Starling could just be off to a rough start. But his poor performance means he has some ground to make up or else it might be time for Fantasy owners to use that spot in long-term keeper leagues on someone else.

Joey Gallo, 3B, Rangers
Affiliate: Class A Myrtle Beach
2014 stats:.333/.421/.750/1.171, two triples, three doubles, six home runs, 16 RBI, 17 runs, 12 walks and 21 strikeouts in 18 games
There's no denying Gallo can hit the ball a country mile. All he's done since turning pro in 2012 has hit for power. He has totaled 68 home runs and has a .645 slugging percentage in 188 games. It seems he can't get to the majors fast enough with those power numbers. Still, Gallo has a hole in his swing that is very concerning to the scouts. His strikeout average is more than one per game and his long swing creates contact issues. Though, Gallo is batting .333 this season and has 12 walks in 18 games, so maybe he's starting to correct some of his flaws. Plenty of power hitters strike out a lot, but we just hope Gallo is more like Chris Davis, who is a high-end Fantasy option despite a high strikeout rate, and not Mark Reynolds, who is an all-or-nothing slugger. Slugger Paul Goldschmidt was promoted to the majors after just 2 1/2 seasons in the minors, but he had the advantage of being older and more polished out of college. Gallo was a high-school draftee, so it wouldn't be surprising if he doesn't even sniff the majors until next year.

Micah Johnson, 2B, White Sox
Affiliate: Double-A Birmingham
2014 stats:.343/.432/.500/.932, one triple, two home runs, three doubles, eight RBI, eight runs, 10 walks, 12 strikeouts and seven stolen bases in 18 games
Johnson wasn't expected to last as long as he did in major-league camp this spring, but the 23-year-old second baseman remained with the team until some of the final cuts. After a strong spring, Johnson has carried that momentum into the start of the season at Double-A Birmingham, leaving plenty to speculate about his arrival to the majors. Johnson, who underwent elbow surgery in October, had some defensive shortcomings he needs to shore up before getting the call to the majors, but it appeared he was making great strides in that area this spring. Last season, Marcus Semien and Erik Johnson both started the year in Double-A and made their MLB debuts later in the season for Chicago. However, both players did make a pit stop at Triple-A prior to their major-league debuts, which Johnson will likely do as well. But if he keeps producing at his current pace, then he could be at Triple-A by midseason, if not sooner. Fantasy owners are going to want to keep tabs on Johnson's progress because he could be the next great base stealer making his way to the majors.

Aaron Sanchez, SP, Blue Jays
Affiliate: Double-A New Hampshire
2014 stats:1-1, 2.29 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 18 strikeouts, 10 walks and one home run allowed in four starts (19 2/3 innings)
The scouts love to talk about Sanchez's potential as a frontline starter. They consider him to have a standout repertoire of pitches and they like his intelligence in game situations. Sanchez, who is considered the Blue Jays' top prospect by Baseball America, has had plenty of success in his career. He owns a 3.26 ERA and has a 9.2 K/9 rate through 275 2/3 innings. However, his weakness continues to be his control. The scouts are amazed Sanchez continues to be plagued by control issues despite his easy arm action. Sanchez might be able to get away with control problems in the minors, but major-league hitters make you pay. Just look at Indians starting pitcher prospect Trevor Bauer. Sanchez also has to work on staying healthy and getting his innings up in the minors. He's never thrown more than 90 1/3 innings in a season, so the Blue Jays probably won't bring him to the majors until he's ready to prove he can handle a large workload. Sanchez is a predominantly groundball pitcher. The upside comparison for Sanchez would be Justin Masterson, who is a groundball pitcher with a high strikeout rate. The polar opposite might be Tyler Chatwood, who is an effective groundball pitcher with a low strikeout rate.

Carlos Correa, SS, Astros
Affiliate: Class A Lancaster
2014 stats:.306/.361/.486/.848, two triples, two home runs, three doubles, 15 RBI, 12 runs, seven walks, 11 strikeouts and two stolen bases in 18 games
CBSSports.com Baseball Insider Jon Heyman reported last week that some scouts feel Correa is ready for the big leagues. It definitely took me by surprise since Correa is just 19 years old and has never played above Class A. His game is also still very raw, but it's quite evident to see he's progressing quickly. As my colleague Joe Polito pointed out, the Red Sox brought Xander Bogaerts to the majors at 20 years old in 2013, so age might not be a factor. Though, the Red Sox had a pressing need for Bogaerts, and he at least got some time above Class A before his promotion. Even though the Astros have already promoted George Springer and Jon Singleton isn't too far away from his MLB debut, the Astros are not built to contend this season and saving service time for Correa is going to be a factor in his promotion. There's no doubt Correa has good offensive skills, and it seems he's only getting better in the power categories. But he still remains more of a long-term Fantasy keeper than seasonal-league stashee.

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Player News
Red Sox closer Koji Uehara not utilizing fastball this season
by Brandon Wise | CBSSports.com
(1:02 am ET) Red Sox closer Koji Uehara has been throwing an unusual amount of offspeed pitches to start the season. Uehara has thrown fastballs on just 15 percent of his pitches this season, compared to 50 percent over the last three years, according to the Boston Herald.

Manager John Farrell isn't reading too much into it.

"He's going to go with what he feels," Farrell said. "Every 3 mph is about a foot distance in traveling to home plate. So there's a little bit different reaction time. But regardless of velocity there still needs to be the use of (the fastball) just to create separation between his fastball and his split."

Uehara is 1-1 so far this season with a 4.15 ERA and three saves in 4 1/3 innings.


White Sox send reliever Daniel Webb back to Triple-A
by Elliott Smith | Staff Writer
(4/26/2015) White Sox reliever Daniel Webb , who was called up Sunday as the 26th man for the team's doubleheader against the Royals, was sent back down to Triple-A Charlotte after the game. 

Webb pitched in 57 games last season for the White Sox but was one of the team's final cuts in spring training. 


Diamondbacks struggling to fill in void at third base
by Brandon Wise | CBSSports.com
(4/26/2015) Diamondbacks manager Chip Hale knew his team wasn't going to go the entire season without an injury. But the skipper was hoping to avoid the issue he currently has at third base, according to AZCentral.com.

With Jake Lamb on the disabled list with a foot injury, Aaron Hill and Yasmany Tomas have struggled to put it together, combining for a .559 OPS in the last five games.

"Yeah, that's huge," Hale said. "You're going to have injuries all year. There's going to be a multitude of them for every team. If you can't make the adjustment — if guys can't come in and fill the void — then you're going to be in trouble as a club."

Tomas is hitting .286 in 14 at-bats this season while Hill is scuffling along at .156 in 45 at-bats.


Phillies pitcher Chad Billingsley allows seven runs in rehab start
by Brandon Wise | CBSSports.com
(4/26/2015) Phillies pitcher Chad Billingsley allowed seven runs in five innings of work in his third rehab start in Triple-A Lehigh Valley, according to Philly.com.

Billingsley, who is currently on the 15-day DL with an elbow injury, added three strikeouts and two walks in the appearance. He has yet to appear in a major league game since 2013 while dealing with multiple elbow injuries.


Rockies outfielder Carlos Gonzalez still working out of funk
by Brandon Wise | CBSSports.com
(4/26/2015) Rockies outfielder Carlos Gonzalez has yet to put things together at the plate so far this season. Gonzalez is hitting just .197 with two home runs in 66 at-bats and it's wearing on him a bit, according to the Denver Post.

"I'm not in a good place. I'm still hitting (.197)," he said. "But I'm happy that I'm healthy, and that I'm playing, and that we are winning. I think we are having a good month so far as a team."

Manager Walt Weiss thinks he's really close to seeing Gonzalez get all the pieces together and go on a run.

"I saw real good signs from CarGo, hitting the ball hard the opposite way," Weiss said. "It wasn't just the couple of hits he got. It was the way he got them. Those are things that he had been working on. Then, to get results like that, is always encouraging."

Report: Josh Hamilton trade expected to be completed Monday
by Elliott Smith | Staff Writer
(4/26/2015) The trade of outfielder Josh Hamilton from the Angels to the Rangers is expected to be completed Monday, with Hamilton then reporting to Texas' spring training site in Arizona to continue his rehab from offseason surgery, per MLB.com. 

The trade was rumored to have been completed Sunday, but complications arose in finalizing the deal. The Rangers are expected to hold a press conference announcing the trade on Monday. Hamilton is expected to play several games in Triple-A before being called up to the Rangers. 


Dodgers' Jimmy Rollins not concerned with early slump at the plate
by Brandon Wise | CBSSports.com
(4/26/2015) Dodgers shortstop Jimmy Rollins isn't worrying just yet about his struggles at the plate, according to the Orange County Register.

"Well, some people like to panic. That has never been my MO," he said. "I have, what, 50, 60 at-bats, I'm not sure. So if these are my worst 50 at-bats this year – I'm glad they're happening now. (If they are his worst at-bats) it’s going to be a very good year."

Rollins is hitting just .186 in 70 at-bats so far this season. He believes he's still been taking good swings at the plate, just not finding the gaps in the defense.

"It's hard to compute if you just look at numbers," he said. "I'm getting myself in good counts, just not finishing it off. I know it's coming. I'm hitting some off the end, some are getting in just a little bit. But the swing path is right. It's just a click here, a click there.

"The process is good. You have to continue to trust in the process and believe in the process. You get oriented in just results – especially at times like this – then you're trying to make all these technical changes and that's when you go from one to two to 100. So the process is right. Executing it is about fine-tuning."


Angels OF Matt Joyce hopes hit signals end of slump
by Elliott Smith | Staff Writer
(4/26/2015) Angels outfielder Matt Joyce saw his eight-game hitless streak come to an end Sunday with an eighth-inning single that ended an 0-for-26 skid. The right fielder, who figures to be a fixture in Los Angeles' lineup with the expected departure of Josh Hamilton, said he hopes the small start will lead to bigger things, according to the Los Angeles Times

"Sometimes it's a tough game," Joyce said. "It seems like you try everything, and you put in so much time and effort and work, it gets to be frustrating. It gets to be hard to swallow and accept it, and hard to keep showing up and grinding it out."

Angels manager Mike Scioscia said he will continue to stick with Joyce, who is hitting just .140 on the season. 


Mets starter Jonathon Niese struggles vs. Yankees
by Elliott Smith | Staff Writer
(4/26/2015) Mets starter Jonathon Niese was not sharp Sunday in the finale of the Subway Series against the Yankees, lasting just five innings while allowing six runs and eight hits. Niese was betrayed somewhat by his defense, which committed four errors behind him, leading to two unearned runs. 

Niese was spotted a 2-0 first-inning lead, but he quickly gave it back, allowing a first-inning homer to Alex Rodriguez and then giving up four second-inning runs as the Yankees broke the game open. 

"You can't look into it too deeply," Niese said to MLB.com. "It's a loss. It's a tough loss. Obviously we want to win, but we've just got to get through it, learn from it, move on and play better."

Niese, who threw 86 pitches, saw his ERA rise to 2.74 in absorbing his first loss of the season. 

"I just wish I could have a couple pitches back," Niese said. "But I threw them. The results were what they were. I've just got to move on."

Niese will look to get back on track Saturday against the Nationals.


Nationals considering keeping Yunel Escobar at third base
by Brandon Wise | CBSSports.com
(4/26/2015) Nationals manager Matt Williams will have a decision to make when his regular third baseman Anthony Rendon comes back from injury. With Rendon on the shelf, Yunel Escobar has shifted to third and Williams is considering leaving him there even after Rendon returns, according to CBSSports.com Baseball Insider Jon Heyman.

The team is unsure yet what will happen when Rendon returns, but one theory has Escobar staying at third and Rendon shifting to second base, according to Heyman.

Escobar is hitting .292 with five RBI in 65 at-bats while slotted at third base.


 
 
 
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